All-American Citigroup banker Mike Corbat heads back to Saudi Arabia

Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat is bullish about Saudi Arabia's privatization prospects. Illustration by Luis Granhena
Updated 23 April 2018
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All-American Citigroup banker Mike Corbat heads back to Saudi Arabia

  • "The implementation and execution of Vision 2030 will produce global companies for Saudi Arabia, and we can help in that process," said Citigroup CEO
  • "The government has a lot on its plate and privatization takes a long time to set up. Privatization is one of those things that you only want to do once,”

If anybody deserves the description “all-American”, it is surely Mike Corbat, chief executive officer of Citigroup.

New England origins, a Harvard education, Ivy League American footballer and a Wall Street career are all evidence of the fact he was very definitely “born in the USA”, as is the in-bank nickname of “Clark Kent” — the alter-ego of Superman — due to his athletic physique and spectacles.

But last week Corbat was turning his mind away from the USA and toward Saudi Arabia, as the bank formally ended a 14-year self-imposed exile from the Kingdom with a ceremony at its new offices in Riyadh, symbolizing its return to the lucrative markets it first entered in the 1950s, among the first American banks to do business in the region.

Corbat took some time out of the day’s celebrations — a formal ribbon-cutting alongside Ibrahim Al Omar, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, and an elite dinner in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Kingdom Tower — to talk exclusively to Arab News about Citi’s plans for the Saudi business at a time of rapid transformation in the Kingdom and the region.

“I am absolutely positive about the economic prospects for this region. We are in 13 countries here, with 2,500 employees, focusing on trade and business, with some consumer presence. The implementation and execution of Vision 2030 will produce global companies for Saudi Arabia, and we can help in that process. Citi can service some of their needs as they expand globally,” he said.

Citi withdrew from Saudi Arabia in 2004 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, in a decision later described by executives as “a mistake.” Even before the enormous opportunities of Vision 2030 persuaded the bank it had to have a formal presence again in the Kingdom, and a license from the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) to pursue investment banking and other business there, the bank was back on the scene.

In 2015 it helped Saudi Aramco to raise multi-billion dollar loans, and advised the oil giant on Asian deals. The following year, which saw the formal unveiling of Vision 2030, Citi was involved in the groundbreaking $17.5 billion bond issue that marked the Kingdom’s debut on global capital markets.

Citi was back, but needed a CMA license to win more lucrative business in the big domestic economic transformation under way. That was finally granted in April of last year, and Carmen Haddad, a long serving Citi executive with extensive experience of the Middle East, was made head of the new Saudi operation.

“We’ve been at the front and center of the sovereign bonds drive Saudi has been doing for the past couple of years, and also with syndicated loans. But with the CMA license we can really show our worth. We can help with all future debt and equity transactions,” Corbat said.

Vision 2030 aims to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, but also to increase the contribution of the private sector to the national economy, and this is one area where Citi feels it can use its global experience. The bank has advised governments around the world on privatization strategies, and Saudi has a privatization schedule that ranks among the largest in history.

The timing and scale of the program is still unclear. Last year minsters put a value of $200bn on the program, but officials in Riyadh last week were talking more in the $60bn to $70bn range. And investors are still waiting for the first big sell-off of a state company. But Corbat insisted Citi would be ready to get involved when the time is right.

“Privatization is obviously a top priority of the Vision 2030 strategy, and we can bring our expertise to bear in this. I think it is right to take your time over something as significant as the privatization program. The government has a lot on its plate and privatization takes a long time to set up. Privatization is one of those things that you only want to do once,” he said.

By far the biggest element of the drive toward a more private sector-focused economy is the plan to sell shares in the Kingdom’s “jewel in the crown”, Saudi Aramco. Citi is among a small group of top global banks vying for business in the Aramco sell-off.

Originally planned as a big international initial public offering (IPO) by the end of this year, valuing the company at $2 trillion, doubts have begin to creep in over the valuation figure, and over the venue for what promises to be the biggest IPO in history. One suggestion is that Aramco will go only for a listing on the Tadawul exchange in Riyadh.

“I don’t know the timing of the IPO. Maybe they [the Saudi authorities] will want to start locally, in which case they have to be sure the capacity and liquidity are there,” Corbat said.

He believes that recent improvements to the market infrastructure in Saudi Arabia — which look set to see the country included in index provider MSCI’s widely-tracked Emerging Markets index from as early as next year — could make an “exclusive” IPO on Tadawul more attractive.

“The MSCI upgrade to emerging markets status will create more liquidity, and foreign investors will have to play their role,” he said.

“All the big reforms that have taken place on the Riyadh market recently have certainly made it a friendlier place for foreign investors. The CMA has been through more change than ever, and it’s a better place for that. The CMA over the past two years has proven to be progressive and consultative,” he added.

Citi found itself indirectly involved in the big anti-corruption campaign of last year, when their long-term partner and shareholder, Price Alwaleed Bin Talal, was among the businessmen detained in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

Corbat is reluctant to comment on the Kingdom’s internal affairs, though he did say that foreign direct investment would not be hit by the anti-graft drive. “I don’t think FDI has been or will be affected negatively by the anti-corruption campaign. Saudi Arabia is already the biggest economy in the region with only limited foreign investment. Imagine how far it could go with more,” he said.

On Alwaleed, he said: “He has been a shareholder since the early 1990s, and he has been a great shareholder, a loyal voice of support and reassurance. We’ve been fortunate to be able to count him as one of our shareholders. In all our dealings with him I’ve found him to be straightforward and transparent.”

Corbat was one of the top American executives who met with Saudi officials on the recent royal visit to the USA, intended in part to counter any adverse investor sentiment from the anti-corruption arrests, and was impressed by what he saw.

“The visit to the USA by the Crown Prince was extremely well received. The whole Saudi delegation impressed us with their drive and commitment to the transformation process. It was a very successful exercise for Saudi Arabia,” he said.

With 35 years at Citi under his belt, including responsibly for unwinding Citi’s “toxic” assets after the financial crisis, and wide ranging experience of the bank’s international operations, he is well placed to gauge global geo-politcal risk.

He sees some threat to the world financial system from the end of quantitative easing, which he called a “renormalization of the global economy”, and a more limited challenge to world economies from possible “trade wars” between the USA and China.

“I think it’s fair to say that if we did have a serious trade war, it would have an effect. But it would not be the end of trade. I think it’s more likely to redraw the trade lines of the world. Trade flows would move away from the big blocks and go through other areas, like Africa and other places for example,” he said.

On regional risks, always a factor in business and financial decisions in the Middle East, he said: “I think they are within acceptable limits and I don’t think they will go beyond that. The region is the leading center for oil and gas so what happens here has global implications,” he said, though with the caveat that the effects of a prolonged trade was on the “bookend” economies of the USA and China could have a negative impact on global commodity prices.

All-American Corbat may be, but Citi’s return to the Kingdom will just not be an exercise in stuffing US executives into the top jobs in Riyadh. The firm is committed to achieving 85 percent Saudi employment levels at its new office, and is already well on the way to achieving that.

“The market for talent in Saudi Arabia is extremely competitive, but we think we have a very strong appeal for candidates. We are very proud of our ability to invest in and train, and to improve home grown talent,” Corbat said.


‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Updated 26 May 2018
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‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Tom Fletcher might be best described as “the anti-diplomat.” Not in the sense that he sees no value in diplomacy, but in his steadfast refusal to live up to the stereotype expected of the ambassadorial profession.
While British ambassador in Beirut, he tweeted his way to acceptance by his hosts with an informal style and social accessibility that was in distinct contrast to the stuffy image of the traditional diplomatic circuit.
He told the BBC that there was not a single Ferrero Rocher in the embassy building — referring to the chocolates jokingly associated with the job after a 1990s TV commercial — and his “Dear Lebanon” farewell blog in 2015 after four years in the job boosted his broad international online appeal.
Now, Fletcher is running a portfolio of careers in the space where business, technology and public policy intersect. He is a visiting professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, specializing in international relations, and is also involved with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, the “ambassadors’ finishing school” in the UAE capital.
The former envoy is also chairman of the international board of the UK’s Creative Industries Federation and a member of the United Nations’ Global Tech Panel, as well as continuing a career as a successful author. His book “The Naked Diplomat” explored the interactions between governments, technology and big business, and became an international bestseller.
His experience and Internet renown make him a star attraction on the international forums circuit. He was on a panel in Dubai recently to discuss the findings of the 10th Arab Youth Survey, and afterwards went into some detail on the findings of the poll, which showed — alarmingly for some — that the US was waning in popularity in the region under President Trump and that Russia was increasingly regarded as a friend for young people in the Middle East.
Fletcher told Arab News that there was some reason to be worried about those findings, but also cause for optimism. “We have seen a striking fall in reputation among young people in the region since the US elections. But it was also worth noting the wider admiration for the American people as a whole, which looks quite resilient.
“The Russia results were interesting, because Russia has not always been a stabilizing force in the region. On Trump, they are further confirmation that the election of the leader of the free world created a vacuum. But the lights will eventually come back on in the shining city on a hill,” he said.
The survey seemed also to reveal a generational split in the Arab world, with many youngsters demonstrably not sharing their elders’ view of the US president. “I think that the region has access to the same information as the rest of us, and can take from it a pretty clear assessment of Donald Trump’s reliability. There are clearly some areas of alignment with some countries, such as the rejection of the Iran deal. But the survey shows that people across the region also hear the Trump administration’s wider messaging on the Middle East,” Fletcher said.
The Iranian situation was clearly on his mind, but he said there were alternatives to an escalating confrontation between the US and the Gulf states on the one hand, and the regime in Tehran on the other. “Wherever you stand on the Iran deal, its violation is a concern for regional security. The issue we have to ask ourselves is ‘what is the alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear potential?’ Personally, I haven’t seen a better answer to that than the existing Iran agreement.
“Of course, the Iran deal in itself isn’t sufficient in reacting to Iran’s wider regional role, not least in Syria. But I worry that it is the hard-liners in Tel Aviv and Tehran who seem keenest to end the agreement,” he said.
A lot of his time in Beirut was spent dealing with the regional fallout from the Syrian crisis, which started just as he began the ambassador’s job. Surely, seven years on and with no solution in sight, that represents a failure of traditional diplomacy?
Fletcher’s response was, well, diplomatic. “Not all has failed. Huge effort has gone into keeping Lebanon relatively stable, despite the scale of the Syria crisis just across the border. Diplomacy has failed on Syria and on Palestine/Israel. But George Mitchell (the American politician credited with helping bring about an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1990s) said that making peace was 700 days of failure and one of success. We have no choice but to keep trying, and to work harder than those who want to see diplomacy continue to stumble,” he said.
Fletcher’s work in the Gulf has enabled him to take a broad overview of developments in the region, and there is no more intriguing situation than in Saudi Arabia, which is going through a rapid transformation of the economy and society under the Vision 2030 strategy. “I think there has been a shift in international opinion on Vision 2030 over the last year. Initially many were curious, and conscious of the obstacles.
“But there is now a growing realization of how important a reform agenda is, especially if it succeeds in creating more opportunity for young people, including women. We all should hope it succeeds — I think it can, but will need maximum involvement of citizens themselves in shaping an open approach,” he said.
Fletcher also has a clear view of the kind of socioeconomic order that will emerge from the transformational policies of regional leaders.
“The Gulf has clearly realized that there is a need to move away from oil dependency well before the oil runs out. The answer has to lie in a knowledge economy. I’m heartened by the kinds of issues that my students at NYU AD want to work on and pioneer. And by the government focus on themes like wellbeing and education reform.
“Twenty-first century skills will need to be at the heart of the school curriculum, with learners encouraged to be curious, to seek out sources of knowledge and wonder, and to learn teamworking and innovation. This is happening increasingly in the larger cities, but there is still work to be done to mainstream knowledge, skills and character in education systems,” he said.
With the power of Big Data coming under scrutiny as never before in cases such as the controversy over Facebook’s role in the political process in the US and elsewhere, Fletcher’s work for the UN is more relevant than ever, and he believes there is a big role for the Gulf states to play in that debate.
“The Middle East needs to ensure it is better represented in the international architecture. It needs to be a key part of the debate about security and liberty online — the UAE Artificial Intelligence Minister (Omar Bin Sultan Al-Olama) is a great example of this. And it needs to help get everyone on to a free Internet,” he said.
Before entering the diplomatic service, Fletcher was an adviser on foreign policy to three British prime ministers, which gives him a unique perspective on the big current issue in the UK — the increasingly bitter process of leaving the EU, or Brexit.
The search for new trading partners has seen a succession of British ministers visiting the Gulf region in a bid to clinch new business. Fletcher does not share the view of some that the UK is destined for insularity and isolation in the post-Brexit world.
“The UK is going through a complex process, but it is always at its best when it has a worldview formed from having actually viewed the world. When it is open minded, outward looking. When it stands for more liberty — rights, trade, thought.
“The creative industries are already showing the way. And the royal wedding was a brilliant reminder of what the UK can be — diverse, modern, self-aware, creative. We all badly needed that reminder,” he said.
Fletcher was the youngest person ever to get a major ambassadorial post, and seems well set to pursue a handsomely paid career in virtually any sector, from international policy-making, to domestic UK politics or the private sector.
But he still regards himself as a diplomat with a creative twist. “I still write diplomat on the landing cards in planes.” And there is a second book in the works, he revealed: “I’ve just finished a murder novel, featuring an ambassador detective,” he said.
It is doubtful there will be a Ferrero Rocher mentioned in the book.